Cablegate: Elysee Readout of Sarkozy's September 3-4 Visit To

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S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 03 PARIS 001703



E.O. 12958: DECL: 9/09/2023


Classified By: Political Minister-Counselor Kathleen H. Allegrone, reas
ons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1. (S) Summary: During his September 3-4 visit to Damascus,President Sarkozy told Syrian President Bashar al-Asad that in order to establish a relationship of trust with France, Syria would need to honor its commitments and respect certain principles (e.g., Lebanon's sovereignty and the International Tribunal), according to Elysee Middle East Counselor Boris Boillon. Al-Asad reaffirmed his commitment to exchange ambassadors with Lebanon before the end of the year, and to make progress on reviewing bilateral agreements and demarcating the Lebanese-Syrian border. The French plan to assess Syria's progress against these benchmarks at year's end and adjust their policy accordingly, although Boillon candidly admitted that they have not yet given much thought as to what the next steps in their relationship with Damascus might be if Syria were to demonstrate progress. Boillon stressed that Sarkozy remains "pragmatic" about Damascus: if the Syrians do not perform, then "too bad for them." Boillon reported that al-Asad intervened with Hamas Political Bureau
leader Khalid Mishal to encourage the latter to deliver a
letter to captured Franco-Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit
(although al-Asad declined to convey the letter to Mishal
himself). Boillon distanced Sarkozy from ideas the MFA
attempted to table at the Sept. 6 Gymnich regarding how the
EU could play a more active role on the Israeli-Palestinian
peace process. On a sobering note, Boillon said he met last
week with a personal envoy from Saudi King Abdallah, who
detailed a Saudi plan to spend up to $1 billion dollars to
support Sunni groups in Lebanon in the upcoming parliamentary
elections and "against Hizballah." End summary.

Sarkozy Spells it Out for Bashar al-Asad

2. (C) President Sarkozy, during his September 3-4 visit to
Damascus, delivered a frank message to his Syrian counterpart
Bashar al-Asad, according to Boris Boillon (the Middle East
Counselor at the Elysee). Per Boillon, Sarkozy told al-Asad
that in order to build a relationship of trust with France,
Syria would need to respect its commitments (e.g.,
normalizing relations with Lebanon) and respect certain
non-negotiable principles (e.g., Lebanon's sovereignty and
the inviolability of the International Tribunal on the Hariri
assassination). Moreover, Sarkozy noted that France would be
watching closely to see whether Syria attained certain
benchmarks by the end of the year, namely: the exchange of
ambassadors with Lebanon (the most critical benchmark in
Boillon's opinion); the modification of the Syria-Lebanon
High Council; and the restoration of three defunct
commissions to discuss refugees, borders, and to review
existing treaties. Al-Asad reaffirmed his previous
commitment to Sarkozy to exchange ambassadors with Lebanon
before the end of the year, and to make progress on the other
issues. Boillon stressed that Sarkozy remained "pragmatic"
about Damascus and would make a dispassionate decision at
year's end on whether the Syrians had attained the benchmarks
and, consequently, where to take the relationship. He would
not be swayed by pecuniary concerns in dealing with what
France sees as an unimportant trading partner. ("They are
nothing for us," scoffed Boillon, who observed that Syria
froze trading opportunities in 2007 and France was now 61 in
the ranks of Syrian trading partners. He acknowledged that
several business leaders, including the CEO of Total and a
wealthy Syrian-origin entrepreneur, had been on the trip. He
also confirmed exploratory talks on the sale of 14 Airbus
aircraft to Syria and said that U.S. components would pose
problems for such a sale, but added it was a commercial deal
that the GOF was not actively pushing). Sarkozy's view
remains that if the Syrians do not perform, then "tant pis"
(too bad for them) said Boillon, who conceded that the Elysee
has not yet given much thought as to where it would like to
take the relationship if the Syrians pass muster. Boillon
noted that FM Kouchner will likely see FM Muallim in November
at a follow-on meeting for the Mediterranean Union, which
will give the French an opportunity to signal to the Syrians
whether they are on track for a passing grade in December,
which might result in a second, longer visit by Sarkozy to

3. (C) Noting that Sarkozy also pressed al-Asad on Israel,
Iran, and human rights, Boillon assessed that Bashar has been
weakened by the assassination of Mohammed Suleiman and would

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himself be "finished" if he were to publicly acknowledge
Israel's successful attack on Syria's nuclear research
facility, an attack to which the Syrians made no effective
riposte. Al-Asad professed to be concerned by the delay in
the next round of indirect Syrian-Israeli peace talks and, in
response to a query from Sarkozy, claimed to have no
objection to indirect peace talks between Lebanon and Israel
that might proceed in tandem with the Syrian-Israeli track.
However, al-Asad claimed that the Lebanese themselves were
not prepared to take such a step. Boillon claimed that
Sarkozy had made some progress in shaping al-Asad's thinking
on the Iran nuclear question by asking how the latter could
be confident that Tehran's nuclear program is for civilian
use in the absence of international inspection.
(Unfortunately, Sarkozy did not use this moment of epiphany
to suggest that al-Asad also re-think Syria's candidacy for a
seat on the IAEA Board of Governors.)
Human Rights

4. (C) The Syrians, clearly anticipating Sarkozy's talking
points on human rights, adroitly deflected the brunt of his
message by suggesting that France channel future human rights
demands (e.g., lists of prisoners to be released) through
Qatar so as "to avoid the optic of Syria caving into Western
pressure." The French seem to have swallowed this specious
argument, although Boillon claimed that there was a
"favorable evolution" in al-Asad's position on the case of
kidnapped Franco-Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit: Bashar,
although he declined to deliver a letter from Shalit's father
to Hamas Political Bureau chief Khalid Mishal, agreed to
speak to Mishal and encourage him to see that the letter is
delivered on humanitarian grounds. The French believe that
al-Asad fulfilled this commitment.

5. (S) Boillon dismissed the September 4 quad meeting of
Sarkozy, al-Asad, Turkish PM Erdogan, and Qatari Emir
al-Thani as a largely academic exchange of views, with little
meaningful discussion (although he observed that al-Asad and
Erdogan were each surprisingly well-informed about Darfur).
He also reported that on the margins of the visit, Syrian FM
Muallim had told the French delegation that Syria could do
without an EU association agreement if the alternative was
the conditionality outlined in the letter he received a few
weeks ago from his Spanish, German and Italian counterparts.
The significance of Muallim's statement, in Boillon's view,
is that the Israelis have yet to realize that the prospect of
an EU association agreement is not a significant incentive
for Damascus.

MEPP/Saudi Initiative for Lebanon

6. (S) Turning to other regional issues, Boillon distanced
Sarkozy from a set of ideas that the MFA had hoped to present
at the September 6 Gymnich working lunch on how the EU could
play a more active role in supporting the Middle East peace
process; Boillon acknowledged that they reflect ideas Sarkozy
has supported, but characterized them as "reflections" that
did not represent a new initiative on the part of France. On
Lebanon, Boillon said that notwithstanding the somewhat
gloomy reporting from the French embassy in Beirut, he
believed the overall situation in the country was relatively
good at the moment. He described President Sleiman as "very,
very cautious -- and that's putting it diplomatically,"
whereas he saw Michel Aoun as "an enigma who nevertheless
represents many Lebanese Christians -- we don't have much
contact with him, perhaps wrongly." Boillon expressed
concern about funding from the Gulf states for Salafist
groups in and around Tripoli, noting that a former Lebanese
Prime Minister had recently walked him through the reason the
Salafists abrogated an agreement with Hizballah the day after
signing it (the reason, said Boillon, is that one branch of
the Salafist clan funded by Kuwaitis had been over-ruled by
another branch funded by Saudis). On a related note, Boillon
confided that last week he met with a "personal envoy" (NFI)
from Saudi King Abdallah, who outlined an initiative to
provide up to USD $1 billion dollars in support to Lebanese
Sunni groups for use in the upcoming parliamentary elections
and for defense "against Hizballah." "If that is the Saudi
vision for Lebanon, that is truly worrisome," said Boillon,
who was simultaneously arranging a meeting for visiting Saudi
Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who was in France on
September 9 on an unannounced visit to his Parisian residence.


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7. (S) Comment: Boillon is an engaging and enthusiastic
interlocutor whose personal loyalty to Sarkozy is palpable.
We believe his readout to be largely accurate, although we
are somewhat skeptical of Bashar's alleged epiphany on the
Iranian nuclear program, and somewhat dismayed that the
Syrians seem to have so easily deflected the French president
on the question of human rights. As for the benchmarks, we believe the Elysee is sincere in its desire to hold the Syrians to objective performance benchmarks, yet we remain concerned that even if Syria's performance falls short, Sarkozy may find it politically difficult to shelve one of his self-proclaimed foreign policy successes. This suggests
that rather than trying to derail France's rapprochement with
Syria -- a train that has already left the station -- our goal should be to maintain a continual, candid dialogue with the Elysee on Syria's behavior with an eye towards informing their year-end policy review. Finally, we defer to our colleagues at Embassy Riyadh on the question of Saudi financial support for Lebanon's Sunni community; we report Boillon's comments here merely to register the Elysee's concern on that score. STAPLETON

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